Arizona’s Adia Barnes takes on the heavy hitters on the recruiting trail

SEATTLE, WA - FEBRUARY 07: Arizona Wildcats head coach Adia Barnes calls a time out during a college basketball game between the Arizona Wildcats against the Washington Huskies on February 07, 2019, at Alaska Airlines Arena at Hec Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle, WA. (Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - FEBRUARY 07: Arizona Wildcats head coach Adia Barnes calls a time out during a college basketball game between the Arizona Wildcats against the Washington Huskies on February 07, 2019, at Alaska Airlines Arena at Hec Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle, WA. (Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

How does an up-and-coming team avoid being a flash in the pan?

Getting good can happen by chance. Getting that one generational talent can help an afterthought become a Top 15 team for at least a few years. But how do you stay good?

Arizona head coach Adia Barnes is trying to answer that question now. To do it, she will need to beat the top programs in the country not just on the court but also on the recruiting trail.

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Barnes turned around the Wildcats by selling a dream. Her first recruit was Spanish guard Lucia Alonso, who just finished up her college career with the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament. Barnes’ first big splash on the U.S. recruiting scene was Sam Thomas out of Las Vegas Centennial High.

Thomas was the No. 92 recruit and the No. 17 wing in 2017. Barnes had nothing tangible to show her.

“Even the year of the WNIT, no one knew what we were going to do,” Barnes said in a Zoom with reporters this week. “Everybody wants to make the tournament. So I think before I was selling a vision–like, we can be good, we can compete. But (there) wasn’t any proof.”

That vision and the way Barnes articulated it was enough for Thomas, but not for many of those around her.

“I was shocked,” Sam’s dad Derek Thomas said not long before Arizona’s season came to an end this March. “I think the relationships (Sam) built with (Barnes), Sam really felt something that she was going to do something good out there. And she took a lot of criticism for it. A lot of people were laughing at her for not going to the other schools and going to Arizona, so she took quite a beating there for a while.”

Thomas has gotten the last laugh as Barnes has used everything in her power to surround her first Top 100 recruit with players who can get them to the next step on the ladder. Whether that’s poring over the transfer portal or using the overseas contacts of Barnes and her assistant coach and husband, Salvo Coppa, the staff has found those players.

Now, there’s a new question: What do you do once you have combined the likes of Thomas and the well of international talent with Aari McDonald and former McDonald’s All-American Cate Reese? When you get to the Top 15, how do you jump to the Top 10? How do you become a team that’s spoken of as a potential national champion? What changes?

The message certainly changes. Now, it’s not about vision. It’s about 10,000 screaming fans cheering you on to victory. It’s about national talk of a Final Four run.

“We were second in attendance (in the Pac-12) this year,” Barnes said. “I think we can be first next year. So I think that’s what kids like and I have the proof, the evidence to show, ‘Look at our arena. Wouldn’t you want to play in this environment?’ I think the difference is we have so much momentum, so it’s a lot easier to sell to a top player.”

The rub is that things don’t get easier on the recruiting trail. Once upon a time, Arizona couldn’t get into the living room of that top player. Now, Barnes and her staff can get in there, but it’s only to find that the game’s heavyweights have already been.

“You recruit less, but you’re recruiting let’s say an elite 20 kids,” Barnes said. “Well, you know who else has recruited them? UConn, Baylor, Louisville, South Carolina–teams that have already done some of those things. So, now the competition’s even a little harder. Before, you could go get that three-star kid and just kind of figure it out. I think now it’s kind of like you need the kids that can help you win a championship.”

This year, the Wildcats have already lost recruiting battles to South Carolina and Texas. Like everyone else, they’re also battling the extra difficulties posed by COVID-19. That is exacerbated by the fact that it’s a down cycle for West Coast recruits. Barnes is having to recruit kids who may have never been to Tucson and may not get a chance to come before it’s time to commit.

“In about two years, the West Coast will be better,” Barnes said. “California is down.  So all the great kids are all like in the South or the East Coast. So we’re now recruiting Atlanta, Georgia, New York, which is really far. And it makes it more challenging because of the COVID situation. So all those things, but it’s much easier to sell when you’re winning. It’s much easier to say, ‘Hey, we’re a Top 5 team next year. We have potential to be. Come help us get to a championship.'”

Backing up Barnes’ contentions, two top 100 players from the 2021 class have listed Arizona in their final group of schools over the past few weeks. The Wildcats are the only team from out West to make the top 5 for HoopGurlz No. 21 recruit Aziaha James and for No. 63 Jada Walker. Both players hail from the state of Virginia.

Barnes showed that she can convince players from back East to take their chances with the Wildcats. Last year, she brought Washington, D.C. native Amari Carter to the desert as a grad transfer. This year, she repeated that by luring Trinity Baptiste, last year’s ACC Sixth Player of the Year, to Arizona.

Baptiste had publicly stated that she wanted to get closer to her home in Tampa, Fla. when she left Virginia Tech. Barnes decided to roll the dice anyway.

“She’s like the missing piece that we need,” the coach said.

After a good conversation, Barnes thought things were going her way.

“The next day, she texted me and she was like, ‘Oh, coach, I’m going to stay close to home’,” Barnes said. “And I was like, oh man, because I thought I was getting a really good conversation. She was engaged. And then she like, basically broke up with me the next morning.”

It wasn’t the end. Baptiste called back. She watched more film of the Wildcats, and they closed the deal.

Now, the trick is getting that done with younger players. Ideally, Barnes does not want to rely on grad transfers. She wants to develop her own players like she has done with Reese and Thomas, and even multi-year transfers like McDonald and Dominique McBryde.

The first step is winning battles against the likes of Vic Shaefer, Dawn Staley or Geno Auriemma. If she wants her Wildcats to compete with their teams on the court, Barnes will have to use everything at her disposal to beat the coaches on the recruiting trail.

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